George Mason University

News at Mason

Mason Small Business Development Center Offers Students Opportunities for Success

February 29, 2012

By Erin Cushing

Mona Olsen, assistant director of the Mason Small Business Development Center, works with interns Tai-Jung Lin, left, and Ayumi Ito at the SBDC office in Fairfax. Photo by Alexis Glenn

Building a successful venture can be exceedingly difficult for entrepreneurs, but small businesses in Northern Virginia have a secret weapon at their disposal: Mason Small Business Development Center (SBDC).

For more than a decade, the service located in the Mason Enterprise Center has offered counseling services to small business owners at no cost to clients. In the past two years alone, Mason SBDC has worked with more than 765 entrepreneurs and assisted more than 60 new start-ups.

Mason SBDC is not only valuable to entrepreneurs: Students also have numerous opportunities to learn from and work with the organization’s experienced employees and volunteers.

Every semester, a group of high school, college and graduate students who are interested in nonprofit management have the opportunity to be part of the Mason SBDC Operations Internship Program. These students become vital members of the staff, working on their own business goals while assisting staff members in completing strategic projects.

Tailoring a Learning Experience

“We are focused on bridging a gap between the academic and the practical — looking at the skills and interests of the students in the program,” says Mona Anita K. Olsen, Mason SBDC assistant director and PhD candidate in Mason’s Graduate School of Education. “There is no ‘cookie-cutter’ approach to the program plans for the students; instead we align projects based on strategic goals and the background of each student.”

The staff works closely with each intern, helping to tailor an experience that will be beneficial to each student as well as the organization. For the first four to six weeks of the internship, students are given small, short-term projects to complete to familiarize them with Mason SBDC’s processes.

After that, the interns are asked to identify their professional interests and skill sets before managing longer-term projects and more challenging work.

“We’ll work with them to build a project around their interests and skill set that will directly impact their resumes,” explains Olsen.

She recounted an example of an intern who was interested in business prospecting. His project was to craft a pitch on the “value proposition” for Mason SBDC; that is, create a statement that succinctly explains why small businesses benefit from counseling provided at Mason SBDC. The intern then visited several small businesses in Northern Virginia to speak with entrepreneurs about their opportunities and explain the services available to them at Mason SBDC.

Projects and goals can vary widely from intern to intern. For many of the high school students, the experience with Mason SBDC is their first time in an office or professional setting, and they are hoping to learn professional decorum and explore career options.

“During my time as an intern, I was able to learn what techniques and steps need to be used to create a functional business out of an idea,” says Mason freshman Yara Mowafy, who interned with Mason SBDC during her senior year of high school.

Testing Project Management and Business Skills

For the college student interns, much of their work is determined by what major or prior experience they have. Their tasks have ranged from building a social media platform for Mason SBDC to creating a company podcast series, which gave them the opportunity to test their project management and business skills.

“My experience at Mason SBDC was very beneficial to improving my communication skills in business and my ability to use the Internet as a professional research tool,” says Mason student Evan Novalis, a global affairs major who interned with the organization in fall 2010.

Novalis helped develop Mason SBDC’s social media outreach and organized databases of small business owners and entrepreneurs.

Graduate students also complete projects based on their skills and interests. But because they have more professional experience, they are allowed to shadow staff members as they actively counsel small business owners. This opportunity to have real hands-on experience in assisting entrepreneurs is a valuable way for students to gain confidence and skill in entrepreneurial processes.

According to Olsen, Mason SBDC takes the time to mentor their interns, not just in their roles in the organization or in their ability to work in nonprofit management, but in every aspect of their professional lives. Staff members review interns’ resumes every month to see how their business skills and written communication skills are changing and evolving.

“We really want the students to gain a self-efficacy and build their resumes while impacting the regional entrepreneurship community. We also want them to walk away with an awareness of what they want to do and tangible skills that they can utilize in future positions. I want the program to make a difference,” says Olsen.

“The internship is a great opportunity for students to learn more about real-world business operations,” adds Yuta Kato, a services coordinator for Mason SBDC.

Interns typically commit to work eight to 16 hours a week. Mason SBDC is currently recruiting interns for summer 2012. Interested students can find more information and the online application here.